Racism creates racial boundaries, not vice versa

While it seems obvious that race is a biologically based concept, I now wonder if it is not even more a culturally derived one, analogous to sex and women confined to home and burka for their protection and reverence. So is race a meme, a cultural unit transmitted across generations? It is more complicated than that, I know given my last post about meme-weary, but consider these meme wannabes for your amusement: burning cross, white robe with pointy hat and mask or Confederate battle flag flown outside of a museum in contrast with the “I have a dream speech” and Black Lives Matter. And what about the photographs from the 60s civil rights work of Bull Connor’s attack dogs and fire hoses? All of these fit the definition, don’t they?

Going deeper, though, I recently read Ta-Nehisi Coates’ autobiographical book Between the World and Me after seeing so many reviews about the power of its presentation and the passionate beauty of its writing. The reviews are pretty accurate in this regard so I heartily recommend reading this book. Early on he asserts that race (the concept of) is a result of racism (the attitude and belief) and not vice versa, as is often supposed. Wow! To frame it another way, race is more a cultural construct based on faulty biology, one engendered by most probably the sociobiological fear of the other. I think that our kinship feelings for our conspecifics is a powerful factor, one that I hope becomes ever more dominant through the burgeoning interconnectedness of global humanity. However, other factors such as territorial ‘ownership’, competition for mates and resources, and clan/tribal organization are also important features of our conspecific relations even as they constrain a more democratic, i.e., egalitarian and respectful, unification.

Consider the heinous example of King Leopold and the Belgian Congo in the 19th century. Using the age old technique of divide and conquer, the Belgians segregated the Hutu and Tutsis and set the two tribes against each other, building up a wall of ethnic prejudice and misinformation one against the other. Their respective leaders in the independent country of Rwanda played upon those differences to gain political power and that resulted in genocidal warfare around 1990. Ugh, humans! Their views of the other as distinct ethnically from themselves are not based upon their biology: they share their language, religion, and culture, they lived together peacefully enough for centuries before imperial colonization, and recent genetic tests confirm that they are the same population. Race is a tool of racists to gain power. To reinforce this notion, consider that when I lived in Japan I learned that many Japanese do not see any gulf between themselves and black people but they do see Koreans as a lower race, judging by their outspoken prejudices and evident attitude toward inter-marriage. This was, I was told, a remnant from the Japanese imperialism that culminated in WW2.

Another example of how race is a cultural construct used by imperialists can be found in Trevor Noah’s autobiographical book, Born A Crime, another excellent read. His mother was black and his father white and in apartheid South Africa the law prohibited their mating and that left his legal status in limbo. Further, his skin tone clearly showed that he was not black or white, so that walking with his mother or father would be to place them in legal jeopardy for breaking that law. That society had a category for ‘colored’, neither black nor white but he did not fit into that category for some reason. One theme of the book derives from his wandering the racial boundaries, not belonging to any one category yet living with them all. He was bright. His extended family helped him to learn many languages, another manifestation of ethnic categorization, and his mother insisted that he obtain the best education possible, which also marked him as different. While post apartheid laws reduced his legal jeopardy, they did little to solve his dilemmas about how to make his way through a varied and at times difficult racial landscape. It is a great read and helps to appreciate his arrival as host of “The Daily Show” and his distinctiveness as nurtured by his mother who was a force of nature.

The amount of variation among ‘races’ is miniscule when compared with variation among species and even there the variation between simians and us is only a few percent. Any one person in a multi-cultural society, i.e., not geographically isolated or politically segregated, includes genes from other races. Many of us include genes from the Neandertal and Denisovans, who are not even Homo sapiens. I think Ta-Nehisi Coates expressed a truth quite succinctly when he said race is a consequence of racism and not vice versa, a cultural construct the biological basis of which is distorted by those who seek power and control. Oh humans!

In my clinical work I learned that each person is a gem, some are rough and some finely cut, but all have different facets, only one (well, maybe two, not sure of quantity here really) of which is race. Our goal, assuming we pursue a just democracy and compassionate, non-exclusive conspecific relations, is to see each person whole, each gem in its totality, taking in as many facets as possible and always mindful that our perspective from without is constrained by what facets life and society have cut and polished for our viewing and that the whole within, as difficult as it might be to apprehend, is one of our own. Travel on.

Meme weary

Memes? I’m tired of ‘em, damned tired. Sure, I like the idea of memes, those cultural bits and bites encapsulating the commonly held cultural meaning that help a society to congeal or the shorthand for analogous experiences, e.g., the opening notes of Beethoven’s 5th or referring to the Holocaust to convey the horror of some men’s inhumanity. But I grow weary of the indiscriminate use of the term to mean almost any type of human cogitation that spreads (almost unavoidable in today’s electronic age). That lack of a coherent boundary or definition has been a criticism of the term from early on and I read that it also contributed to death of the Journal of Mimetics after a few years as scholars could not agree on anything about the term, surely making any theoretical development impossible. At this point I have to wonder that it took 6 years of journal articles before the academic community recognized its futility, though I am sure some denied their intellectual torpor as they pursued easy publication on a sexy topic. To be fair, Richard Dawkins, who originated the term, only wanted to give a term to cultural transmission, and only that. Perhaps neuroscience will be able to help us more in the future if we show enough integrity not blather away about it so now and work to understand what culture really is.

Why quibble now, you ask. I recently read James Gleick’s interesting book Information. He does a very good job presenting the beginnings of information theory as seen in the genius of Charles Babbage and especially Claude Shannon and an okay job of its subsequent development. I found his rendition of its extension into the biological sciences lacking and I really found his discussion of memes tedious, and, after thinking about culture and how it is biological, I became even more disenchanted with memes.

Consider what Gleick refers to as a meme: ideas that are passed on, i.e., replicate, such as religion (to be fair, Gleick follows Dawkins in this), musical tunes, catchphrases, images, in short any delimited packet of information that catches on to become an invariant form operating between minds, an invariant form of some complexity so that a simple idea is not a meme and a hula hoop is not a meme because it is not information. (Wait a minute, James, I thought one main thesis in this book was that everything was information?)

I did like his book overall and recommend it and I want to give it credit for stimulating me to re-examine this now tiresome concept of the ‘meme.’ The analogy between genetic transmission and cultural transmission is really not that deep; it is actually misleading as I think about it. A meme is generally taken to be a symbolic thing, and that entails a surface and deep structure. The opening bars of Beethoven’s 5th is fate knocking on the door, or at least that is the meme. But consider, please, that musical phrase in context, in the rest of the piece and then the incredible melodies in later movements and that memic symbolization of fate shrinks to insignificance; it is only a amusing hook with little purpose. Sure, the opening is much recognized, but then the deep structure of this amputated form is a short-circuited semantic memory obscuring the work’s remarkable artistic import. Just like another popular memic example, ‘jumping the shark’, the deep-surface relationship is at best shallow. We mistake the electronic image, which does indeed spread virally, as standing for culture and I think that is altogether a misconception. The current concept of meme is only conceivable in this age of electronic communication. Even the meme of Beethoven’s 5th opening bars depends upon sound recording.

Consider other views of what may be termed cultural transmission in the examples of emotional and pragmatic expression and social stigma. I am thinking here of cultures where emotional expression is inhibited, making members’ affect hard to read at times, or where expressions of grief are most properly loud keening as opposed to silent suffering. Some cultures find close physical proximity while conversing normal while others stipulate greater distance. Some eat only with the right hand. Some prohibit showing the soles of your shoes unless you want to instigate trouble with our disrespect. I see these as cultural practices with bare symbolic operations, if indeed any.

Consider also our culture’s stigma against those with mental illness, especially how hard it is to displace. For years as a psychologist I worked to disperse that stigma by presenting the data refuting misconceptions (yeah, I know, spitting into the wind), and I continue to admire those who work to mitigate that stigma and so enhance people’s willingness to seek early intervention or to hire without fear. Again, this is cultural but not memic, and this distinction reinforces further my impression that memes are actually all about our amusement, not our understanding of culture.

Genes control the generation of a somatic vehicle for their replication. Good enough. Memes control nothing; they convey vaguely defined notions. Genes spread through two tests, one is their coherence with the rest of the genome and the other is the adaptability of the somatic vehicle in the environment. Ideas and memes have some analogous properties here, but I think, at least as cultural units, memes are more a part of the environmental context as they are cultural vehicles carrying culture forth. Human societies are complex and operate in multiple symbolic and non-symbolic domains. Given this view, memes are wind driven ripples across the waves and tides of human culture; they are noticeable given the white froth of their peaks but dissipate soon enough while the cultural ocean rolls on.

I postpone the discussion of another cultural phenomenon that troubles us, that of race, and so until next time, travel on.

 

 

Memes, mirroring & tropes

Since Richard Dawkins coined the word ‘meme’ in his 1976 book, The Selfish Gene, we have had some difficulty defining the word more specifically. Despite the intuitive sense that the word does capture something meaningful, the smallest unit of cultural replication, a science of mimetics has not gained widespread traction. Of course, knowing what culture actually is would be a big help. Other primates show cultural differences between groups. Chimpanzees and bonobos are different species, though very much like genetically, and their ‘cultures’ are quite different. We can even see such differences between different groups of chimpanzees. By we I mean those who study and are very knowledgeable about these animals. Other scientists have documented that some species of birds have different songs characteristic of geographically isolated groups. Do these animals operate with memes? Human culture also varies according to geographical isolation as well as by temporal change. Five and six hundred years ago Western culture comprised some memes supporting the divine right of kings, i.e., royalty=sun=god=supreme power=do what they say or else. Some cultures continue to transmit such memes about their leadership, while we now scoff at the notion (and hopefully argue against those who challenge the separation of church and state).

Of course we know roughly what human culture is, even though we have difficulty breaking it down into the measurable, empirical units that are memes. And of course, our culture is different from those of other animals’ because ours in composed through our superb empathic capacity and especially through our distinctive symbolic ability. Part of the difficulty defining memes comes from just that: our protean symbolic abilities that foment society wide memes to form our culture. While we electronically enhanced humans quickly think of emojis and emoticons as memes, these are actually just icons, simple signs standing for one thing, e.g., happy face=happy, LOL=humor maybe ironic, etc. Our culture is a much richer phenomena; it is more an ecology of memes that regulates social relationships than cartoonish marks that serve as shorthand for social niceties or the thoughts punctuating communicative transitions. Like the ones of royalty’s divine right, memes are the coin of exchange between individuals and their society and they change and shift with cultural evolution. Individuals take in societal expectations for cohesion and contribution and then social developments slowly modify what those are. Take, for example, the meme of ‘women’s liberation’ from the 1950s on. This change of role expectations resulted from a complex of factors, i.e., contraceptive medicine, employment patterns, educational advances, voting, etc. The meme operated across society in this change of cultural roles.

So memes mutate and culture evolves through a complex dialectic of symbolic interaction. No wonder they are difficult to define very precisely, and this is only one side of the problem. We also need to understand how our brains receive, produce, and process memes psychologically. Memes are only as effective as they structure or regulate our mental processes; they provide guidance for each individual in that social group. Someone who rejects the memes (“the King is a man same as any of us” sort of thing) is a rebel or at worse, unsocialized, or at best, a leader of cultural change. How do we understand this process of meme transmission and meme mutation? In answering this question we look to psychology, sociology and neuroscience hoping to find a bridge between biological science and cultural exchange. We are explorers here; no map shows the terrain between evolutionary biology and the social sciences. The liberal arts must be close by, but where, oh, where?

In place of ‘replication’ Dawkins and others generally use the term ‘imitation’, an old stand-by from the dawn of psychological science. Memes are transmitted through imitation and change through imperfect imitation, much like the old whispering game. While this helps some to clarify, it also limits our view. We may have no map connecting evolutionary biology and the social sciences but neither do we need obfuscation, especially when we have a better alternative. In the 1980s Giacomo Rizzolatti and colleagues discovered neurons in monkey brains (a finding since extended to other species) that lit up when the animal performed a particular action, e.g., cracking a nut, and also when the animal observed another performing that same action. Instead of naming these ‘imitation neurons’, they felicitously called them ‘mirror neurons’. Imitation is ‘monkey see, monkey do’; mirroring is ‘monkey see, monkey do but only in the mind’. That is an important difference, the difference, as it were, between Skinner and Freud.

Mirroring comprises imitation and even the distorted imitation like the fun house mirrors at the fair, but the truly important feature here is the silver backing that represents or brings forth the endogenous, autonomous and autogenic impulses of a vital mind. We humans, and indeed other animals, bring as much to the image as our sensory organs do, even more in our case. This is a mirror more akin to the Mirror of Erised in Harry Potter that shows viewers an image of their own desires. This is a mirror wherein reflections may come from without, may be held and changed, and even more may come from within.

Our quicksilver brains carry out mirroring in many ways through different systems and for different purposes. Consider the initial discovery. We, along with other primates and some other animals, monitor others’ actions more or less automatically and sometimes quite closely and consciously. We see someone pick up a cup and drink tea, our tea drinking motor cells light up. We see someone put their hand down as if they were going to drink tea and our drinking mirror system lights up. We see someone glance at the teapot and fix them some tea. Psychologically such a system makes cooperating easy to do and it helps us to learn by imitation, e.g., how to knap a stone for a sharp edge. It also lets us modify the motoric protocols for a better performance. Some animals can use this system in a playfully false manner, like one dog feinting one way and then going another in order to trick the other dog or sort of like a football or basketball player with the ball faking out the defensive player. Sometimes we mirror too closely and lose points in the game.

Mirroring systems are more ubiquitous than we might suppose. We mirror each others’ faces, thereby taking in information about another’s mood, manifest intention, etc. Our good dogs do this with us as well. Family members and intimates communicate without communicating, by communing empathically, cooperating (or not) in a variety of tasks without explicitly planning it. Being familiar together brings with it a wealth of engagement in countless small ways and often unappreciated until later. I am thinking of watching a grandfather with his young grandson, who is rather unconsciously though perhaps admiringly striking the same pose as his elder or those living with a loved one over a long time whose shared context and current empathic communication almost creates a unity of mind making it easier to finish the other’s thought or to remember what the other forgot. Our phenotypic personality develops as our brain’s mirroring systems mature and we internalize features of our important persons even as we bring our own native abilities to our relationships.

Our mirror systems operate across sensory modalities and with both concrete and symbolic information. The arcuate fasciculus (AF) is a long fiber system that connects Wernicke’s area (auditory understanding) and Broca’s area (expressive speech); it helps us to mirror what we heard the other say. When the AF is severed, the person cannot repeat what they just heard. The AF carries the auditory signal to the speech articulation system in a way that facilitates the motoric mirroring of speech. In conduction aphasia due to brain injury when the AF is disrupted, the person may understand and even answer but cannot repeat what they heard. Then we have the opposite when some children with autistic spectrum disorder are echolalic and can repeat anything clearly but understand very little. Mirroring starts the process of deeper social connection and understanding. What is true of the left arcuate fasciculus for language is also true of the right AF for affective communication. Even more basically some might posit that our sensory organs ‘mirror’ what is out there, reflecting the sensory information in the virtual figures of neural processing.

Memes are the figures of cultural mirroring. They are the means whereby important social/cultural information is brought forward easily into the members’ minds. They are like echoes sounding through the group that enable us to dance together. Memes are socially constructed and shared, and to be effective, they must channel individual efforts to contribute to group responsibilities. Here we come to the difference between memes and tropes. Memes replicate and function well only when they spread accurately, i.e., the cultural contagion of these information viruses spreads as our mirrors reflect with little distortion, etc.  Tropes are an artistic element; they function well in the individual’s composition of the artwork and then with any other individual culturally similar enough to understand the trope’s figure. To comprehend Elizabethan literature, we must understand the meme of royalty=divine=sun=better do as they say. To appreciate Shakespeare, we must mirror and feel fully the tropes he wrought, e.g. “It is the east, and Juliet is the sun”. Tropes are not standardized or culturally mirrored, or if they are, they function as clichés. Ho-hum. Tropes are vital, intuitive renderings from the depths of the mirror; they are not reflective but generative, and they express some important feeling about our particular, individual experience. Tropes, indeed all art, provide the silver backing of our mirroring; without them we would just be imitators with an astonishingly impoverished culture by current standards. And that is really why I like the term ‘mirroring’ more than ‘imitation,’ and that is why the study of art is so important to biology and neuroscience. We may never understand the quicksilver creativity of intuition; we certainly won’t in the positivistic sense of understanding, which is bent upon exerting control, but I hope we come to appreciate more this manifestation of life’s vitality, as uncontrollable as it may be! Our science is not limited to empiricism, as necessary and important as hypothesis testing and data are, but also includes the paradigms we creative Humans bring to our endeavors.  Here is a place of rest before I travel on, but coming in the near future a post about the dual loop model of language, its wider context and the temporal parameters of mental information.

Let’s get esoteric here, just for a moment

I have written some about ‘memes’, the smallest units of cultural replication as named by Richard Dawkins. I don’t think I have mentioned ‘trope’ before now, but I am reading The Daemon Knows by Harold Bloom, and he has used the term seriously and playfully. The book presents his view of the genius, the daemon lifting some of the great American writers to write sublimely. He is both knowledgeable and passionate, so his perspective from up high given his study over the past many years is illuminating. He is a great reader and passes some of that in this book. He is over 80 and is keenly aware of mortality, so this also feels like a true culmination of his intellectual life.

Anyway, as I was reading about Ralph Waldo Emerson and Emily Dickinson, I wondered how ‘trope’, i.e., an artistic image resonant with intuitive, symbolic meaning, and ‘meme’ might be related. Looking at the dictionary, a trope is a figure of speech used artistically (but I think there are visual tropes in painting as well) and can be a fresh creation or a cliché, so tropes vary in freshness or vitality. Memes are passed on or replicate throughout a cultural group and pass in and out of the meme pool over various periods of time. Reading Shakespeare requires understanding the different memes of his time and tropes of his language. One meme would involve the divine status of royalty, e.g., king=divine=sun=god=do what he says. One trope would be Romeo’s “But soft, what light through yonder window breaks? It is the east and Juliet is the sun.”

So how are these related, or more relevantly, how does a biological creature like us produce both? At first I wondered if a trope were a specific kind of meme, a sub-category of memes specific to artistic expression while other sub-categories of memes operate within other domains, e.g., governance, religion, science, etc. And while that may be the case, I focused on how the MEMBRAIN might process them differently. Sure both operate between minds. A meme can be used as a trope and a trope can become a meme. Both would seem to involve some imitative process, as Dawkins and other mimeticists think, or better termed, I think, they would be an elaboration of the mirror functioning I have discussed before. Briefly said, mirror neurons, which, in response to seeing another perform an action fire up preparatory to performing that same action, are one manifestation of our powerful empathic, mirroring engagement. We feel, and can think, the same in response to another’s affect, etc.; this is basically how we come to understand one another.

From this perspective, this view into one facet of our being, memes and tropes would both be expressions used in our communication, empathic, symbolic, and cultural, and would still be different from each other. So how to understand this? I am going back to my Soma, Brain, and MEMBRAIN diagram as a broad reference.

somabrainM

A trope is an element of aesthetic construction; in its most powerful expression a trope helps induce our feelings of beauty, what Dr. Bloom terms the sublime, and further he understands that an artist’s demon, that individual ‘spirit’ that rises from within and is different from the usual cultural maxims, is at the source of good and great art. The art object, Langer’s presentational symbolic form, conveys through mirror functioning, these feelings which arise from soma into brain until the MEMBRAIN composes the figure. Art, e.g., a trope, involves the self’s expression, the self as biologically, vitally embodied.

A meme functions between bodies on a cultural level; selves are involved in mirror processing the manifestations of memes in a socially regulated process. A meme is a social construction that promotes, hopefully, group cohesion, identity, and activity; it is not basically an aesthetically embodied product. It is a more prescriptive form of symbolic information, and as such, we deal mostly through mimetic communication. A trope is produced as an individual differentiates his or her stance towards life experience from the socially engendered or cultural mimetic forms. We operate with the MEMBRAIN most prominently during the day, as it were, and then we operate as an embodied self during the night, meaning our moments of private reflection and intuition.

So the difference between meme and trope lies somewhere here: a trope serves the organization of the individual’s symbolic capacity and a meme serves the organization in the society’s need for cohesion. Both are part of the biological mirror functions that help us be together. I will leave another view of this difference until a later time (that tropes serve as the coin of the individual subjective dialectic between somatic necessity and symbolic creativity and that memes are the coin of the social dialectic between an individual’s creative needs and society’s need for regulated participation. Both of these dialectics come from Langer in Mind, v.3, and I have discussed them in little bits over the past year or so).

And now, remembering the importance of art promotion, education, and sharing, it’s time to travel on.

Arcuate fasciculus, mirror neurons, and memes

I have wanted to get to this post all week but the farm has taken all my time and energy.  I hope tomorrow’s rainy forecast verifies for many reasons.  Onward.

The arcuate fasciculus (AF) is a horizontal bundle of nerve fibers running between the posterior Wernicke’s area in the auditory cortex and the motor cortex associated with Broca’s area in the front.  Mirror neurons are motor neurons which fire/respond when an animal sees another animal perform some action; these neurons would be involved in performing the observed action but in their mirror functioning, they just respond to perceptual input and are not part of a behavioral enaction.  Memes, as conceived by Richard Dawkins, are units or forms of cultural meaning transmitted through social communication.  Going from my post on 4/7/14 about the MEMBRAIN, i.e., our brain functions as a membrain around our mind and some communication is privileged so its reception and expression is facilitated by specialized channels through the MEMBRAIN.

                                                  Image

We have known about the AF for a long time because damage to it results in conduction aphasia, i.e., the person cannot repeat the words they just heard though they may be able to comprehend and respond conversationally.  Evidently the AF enables a person to repeat verbatim.  Long years ago I worked with a young autistic boy who understood almost no language and uttered no meaningful speech but who could and did repeat (echolalia) what was said quite accurately in a sort of inverse of conduction aphasia.  So this part of the MEMBRAIN filters phonological information and passes it straight through to areas concerned with motoric output.  Maybe it helps us repeat things we do not initially understand as an aid to comprehension or to repeat things we do understand for better memorization.  The AF also seems to help with the phonological analysis needed for fluent reading (another specialized channel).  I finally got around to reading an article about this by Yeatman et. all. in the Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience 23:11 about the AF and phonological abilities.  Their findings were interesting but what really caught my attention was the basic work they did imaging the AF  in both the right and left hemispheres. While some neuroanatomists have thought the AF was strictly a left sided structure, being involved with language as it is, it turns out that careful imaging also reveals an AF structure in the right hemisphere.  Is it concerned with language?  Or does it participate in the usual right hemisphere functions of emotional communication, prosody, and pragmatics?  Does it carry information about emotional expression, so that we can mimic the expression of another?  The AF is variable on both sides and in both sexes; could gifted mimics like Rich Little or Jim Carrey, have a more prominent right AF? Does someone who is exceptionally empathic or tuned into the expression of microemotions have a more developed right AF?

Thinking about the AF I considered how similar its function is to mirror neurons, which were only discovered maybe 20 years ago.  When a monkey sees another monkey pick up a nut, the neurons involved in picking up a nut fire in response to the percept.  Different neurons fire if the other monkey picks up the nut to give away or to crack.   The AF is a special exemplar of long fiber bundles connecting front and back areas but other larger tracts such as the superior longitudinal fasciculus connect many such areas.  Again, specialized channels in the MEMBRAIN.

Now consider memes, cultural bits which pass into and out of our minds with noticeable facility.  We hear a snippet of music and play a longer passage back in our minds sometimes all day long.  Or we talk about time being up, going faster, crawling, etc and understand easily the conventional metaphor of our culture.  Memes are probably supported by more dynamic functional organizations involving non-specialized neurons, unlike the AF or mirror neurons but they still provide flexible specialized channels into the mind.  There’s a lot more to consider here but dinner calls.